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Guilty of letting friendships slide? An emerging body of research reveals loneliness is a bigger threat to health than smoking or being overweight.

We’re told eating well, exercising regularly, avoiding cigarettes, limiting alcohol and managing stress is a simple-yet-comprehensive list of healthy habits that combat the effects of 60-hour weeks chained to your desk. 

Except it’s not. 

According to the Australian Psychological Society’s Australian Loneliness Report 2018, an estimated one in four Australian adults is lonely, and a growing body of research shows loneliness is a bigger threat to life expectancy than traditional factors like smoking, obesity, insufficient exercise and alcohol consumption. In fact, a 2015 study found that feeling lonely increases the risk of early death by a whopping 26 per cent, which is a very compelling reason to add meaningful social connections to your recipe for a healthy lifestyle. 

The risks of flying solo

Loneliness is usually a sign that our relationships are inadequate or don’t meet our expectations or needs. That’s not to say having only a handful of friends is the cause: according to the Loneliness Report, loneliness is related more to the quality than the quantity of relationships.

What’s more, it’s possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people. “Loneliness is a psychological state, not a physical one, so what matters is not being alone but feeling alone,” says Alex Haslam, a professor of psychology at The University of Queensland. “You can feel socially connected when alone at the top of a mountain, but lonely in a large crowd.”

Loneliness is strongly related to poor mental and physical health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, lonely people are more likely to be depressed than people who aren’t lonely. Loneliness also has a negative impact on how the brain works, its ability to handle cognitive tasks, and inflammation in the body – and according to a 2016 article published in Harvard Men’s Health Watch, it’s associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and dementia.

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